The election cycle and life cycle in the US

applepieIt’s been two years and two days since we arrived in US.

In my head, before we made the move, the thought of coming to live in America summoned up romanticized images of the huddled masses aboard ships sailing past a foggy Statue of Liberty en-route to Ellis Island, to new lives filled with hope and freedom (all set to a soundtrack of Neil Diamond songs).

The reality was far more mundane – British Airways to Washington International Airport, an hour in line to get our passports checked, and then off to our pre-arranged service apartment.

As it happens we landed in the States on the day of the last US Presidential election and I’m writing this in the wake of another national contest – this time for Congress.

This is not to suggest that politics has been a central facet of our time in the US, far from it. But given that Washington DC’s main business is that of government, politics finds a way of intruding into everyday life – such as being caught in a traffic jam as the Presidential convoy makes its way to Congress for the State of the Union Speech.

Nonetheless there is a connection between the US election cycle and the course of our stay – so far – here. The two year mark provides an opportunity to take an accounting – on a national level – of the state of the country, and from our domestic stand-point, on state of our family in the country.

On the national stage much has changed in that time – with President Obama going from the man with the political Midas touch to an untouchable.

We have also changed from wide-eyed newcomers, to (relatively) settled members of a community. In that time, we have found a home, a school, a synagogue and a social circle that seems to fit for our family.

Certain aspects of our absorption into American life have proved easier than others. Unlike in Israel we haven’t had to contend with a foreign language, or a national culture that is predicated upon argument as the basic form of communication. There is also a lack of British reserve and cynicism, which helps in getting things done and getting to know people.

Americans are open, helpful and generally very polite. Initially I found this disconcerting, wondering what was wrong with these people, and if they were medicated to behave so well. And while there was much cultural familiarity, I sometimes found that we really were ‘two peoples divided by a common language’, in everything from swearing to humour.

We have had to make adjustments to the peculiarities of life here as compared to the Middle East. In Israel there is a gritty realism where your senses are heightened (or is that assaulted?) by the sights, smells and human interactions to be found in the markets, streets, and places where people mix. In the US, life is more organized, predictable, and clinical, to the point where you can’t wander more than a few paces without being confronted by a hand sanitizer to ensure that you are suitably sterile.

There are of course good and bad – in the ways and peoples of both places, but it all takes time to get used to the change.

It also takes time to find friends with whom you can be yourself, and this can be an exhausting process. Upon arrival we began meeting people, through work, the school, the neighbourhood and elsewhere. Getting to know them was a reminiscent of dating from my single days without the potential for humiliation or sex. We would meet up with people for a drink, dinner or brunch – and in most cases that would be that. But after endless get-togethers with an assortment of individuals and families we have found a close few, with whom have we can spend effortless time, just being ourselves.

The past two years has been a journey of discovery. We have found the US to be a more foreign and more fascinating country than first imagined. Compared to Israel the notion of American history seems like an oxymoron. And yet despite the relatively short record of modern America, it also possesses a compelling narrative, accompanied by endless places to discover and things to do.

So in reflecting upon the past two years in DC, and our move from Israel it seems appropriate to draw upon an important political source – Winston Churchill – who summed it up best of all when he said that, ‘now is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’

Then and now – Race in the USA

There is – as I have recently discovered – a straight line running from Ferguson, Missouri to Charleston, South Carolina. Ferguson is small town of twenty one thousand people sitting close to the St Louis International Airport, known until very recently for very little either in or out of the its home state.

By contrast, Charleston with a population of one hundred and twenty thousand is a tourist mecca attracting visitors from near and far to experience its renowned Southern charm and architectural beauty.

Yet these two places seemingly so dissimilar and separated by over eight hundred and fifty miles are inexorably linked by the issue of race. The connection between them reaches across centuries from slavery to segregation, right up to present day with the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed eighteen year-old  African-American shot by police in Ferguson.

A few weeks ago I visited Charleston, and alongside experiencing great food and sweltering heat, I discovered that it is an appropriate place to begin when pondering the difficult and highly sensitive subject of race.

One of my first stops was to one the city’s cobbled and palm tree-lined streets. Sitting opposite a clutch of picture postcard eighteenth-century houses, is a two story brick building that while modest in size, occupies a big place in the most shameful chapter of American history.

It is believed to be the last surviving building of its kind which served as a slave market – a location for human beings to be bought and sold.

Walter Boags outside the 'Old Slave Mart' in Charleston

Walter Boags outside the ‘Old Slave Mart’ in Charleston

The Old Slave Mart – as it’s called – originally contained a jail, kitchen and morgue alongside room for potential buyers to inspect the human chattels. The space is now a museum, and recalls its former purpose along with the experience of those who passed through it.

Alongside boards explaining the way in which men, women and children were priced and sold, are artifacts such as pamphlets advertising forthcoming auctions, and a leather whip used to flay those people destined to a life of slavery.

The museum guides are the descendants of those who passed through Old Slave Mart and other places like it that once proliferated in Charleston.

Walter Boegs – ‘biker, bartender, tour guide and concierge’ (in that order) says he is a living embodiment of Charleston’s mixed history.

‘Look at me,’ he says indicating his light brown complexion. ‘I have French Huguenot, Native American, and African blood.’

With his rich James Earl Jones-like voice, Walter describes the important place of Charleston in the slave trade, ‘forty percent of the half million Africans landed in North America came through the port’.

He tells of how people were divided by their ‘owners’, irrespective of family bonds, and the scale of the commercial enterprise that was the international slave trade.

Advertising an auction of slaves in the Old Slave Mart

Advertising an auction of slaves in The Old Slave Mart

About ten miles outside Charleston, are examples of where these people were put to work, and how they carved out a new society and economy for the benefit of others. Middleton Place’s lush landscaped gardens line the banks of the nearby Ashley River. Barring the tropical climate, the grand house and surroundings that make up the former plantation, resemble an English stately home (think Downton Abbey with mosquitos).

Here men, women and children once worked in the withering heat, planting, nursing and harvesting rice bound for markets in Europe. The Middleton family, originally from England founded the property and at its height they had 3,500 slaves. While the Middletons lived in faux-aristocratic grandeur, their slaves subsisted in simple wooden shacks possessing the same rights as the estate’s cattle, sheep and horses.

This was of course a long time ago, and the current day Middleton Place Foundation carefully and sensitively describes the horror of what once transpired on the plantation.

Middleton Place today

Middleton Place today

An African-American guide explains how the end of the civil war did bring about the official demise of slavery in the South but did not deliver freedom. That only came with civil rights over a century later.

But even now securing the rightful place of African-Americans alongside others in the US is unfinished business. On the day I toured Middleton Place, the news from Missouri was of unrest and boiling anger following the death of Michael Brown, who had been shot six times and left uncovered on the street for four hours. Justifiable outrage consisting mostly of peaceful demonstrations (with a minority of violent outbursts) was met by M-16 wielding cops, a tank, and force resembling that of an occupying army, rather than a police force meant to serve the community.

That is hardly surprising when you consider that among the fifty three officers of the Ferguson police force only three are black (the town is over 65% African-American). It’s also been reported that at least five of the Ferguson’s police officers are facing civil rights lawsuits for using excessive force (they all pre-date the killing of Michael Brown).

It would be comforting to think that Ferguson is an aberration – but that is not the case. In many places in the US today, having a black skin is a presumption of guilt in the eyes of the police and other officialdom.

While racial profiling has been ruled illegal by the Constitution, on the ground it flourishes, meaning that African-American drivers are around four or five times more likely to be stopped than others. Data on the numbers of African-Americans killed by police are hard to come by, but in the course of a few weeks around the time of Michael Brown’s killing a further four other unarmed black men were killed by police around the country. Additionally, according to a 2013 report, one in three (!) African-American men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lifetime (compared tone in seventeen for whites). These figures are shocking but absent of the anger and frustration that African-Americans must feel when confronted with what this means in reality for them and their communities.

It seems inconceivable that a country founded upon the notion of the equality of all men possesses such inequalities.

African-Americans say the system is stacked against them, and it’s easy to see what they mean. For while segregation ceased decades ago, the de-facto separation of people according to race has persisted. Washington D.C is over fifty percent black, and yet where we live in the prosperous North West you are utterly separated from that reality with a population that is overwhelmingly white. In my neighborhood we benefit from good transport links, well-funded schools, and excellent public services from municipal swimming pools to numerous well-maintained playgrounds. That is not the situation for the African-American majority in D.C.

And while race is an issue that bubbles beneath the surface, discussion of it is codified. While on vacation near Charleston, I got talking one day while relaxing by the swimming pool to a (white) man called Rick from rural Ohio. He explained to me that gun crime began in the wake of the 1968 riots (sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King). Welfare – I was told – was an issue of mainly ‘minorities’ and some others not wanting to work. Rick never uttered the word ‘black’ – he didn’t have to – he hid the term in plain, sight cloaking his racism with euphemisms. It’s the same modus operandi used by others, including some nationally broadcast commentators, when talking about drugs, law and order, or other social issues.

As an outsider (and a privileged white one at that), I am ignorant of what life is like for African Americans. In observing race relations, there are radically different impressions to draw upon. On the positive side of the balance sheet the country has travelled a massive distance in a relatively short period. It has gone from situation just decades ago, when black people in many places in the U.S were not allowed to sit at the same lunch counter as white people, to a place where a man of color is incumbent in the Oval Office.

On the negative side, the socio-economic underclass in DC (and in other cities in the US) is overwhelmingly black. In dealings with the police, the courts, in housing, education and a multitude of others ways, discrimination and disadvantage are everyday occurrences for African-Americans.

This situation has come about in the US over the course of hundreds of years. Starting in Charleston and elsewhere, it stripped a people of their culture, family ties, dignity and most basic rights. It dehumanized them and resulted in unfathomable suffering. Modern America promises full equality and the same opportunities for all, yet many African-Americans are still waiting for that to be realized.

The shadow of Charleston still tragically hangs over the country, and continues to be felt as far away as Ferguson and beyond.

Up in arms for Independence

ENG_RWBFireworks[1]We are back in Washington following the traditional Fourth of July holiday weekend, which commemorates the humiliation of my mother country – then the dominant world power, by a bunch of – then upstart – colonies. Putting wounded national pride to one side (after 238 years, we can do that) it’s a wonderful occasion filled with fireworks, food, shameless flag-waving, and cold beer over hot barbeques. Aside from the enjoyable frivolities, for Americans the 4th July is a celebration of hard-won freedom – which to outsiders may sound corny, but to people here is deeply and sincerely felt.

We spent the holiday with friends in their lodge nestled in a beautiful wooded corner of rural Pennsylvania, enjoying (quite literally) the flavor of one of the original colonies that was a cornerstone of the USA. Saturday night was spent watching festive fireworks colour the sky red, white and blue, while leaning against our cars in the parking lot of ‘Sundae’s’ the local ice-cream parlour.

Days were mainly spent hanging or floating around in the local lake, eating or planning what to eat next. Taking a break from the serious business of idleness, we drove one day to Bedford, the local picture-postcard town which has figured in some of the key events in America’s history. According to a local signpost George Washington stayed in the town while putting down the 1791 Whisky Rebellion – a local uprising against a new tax. The insurrection began following an attempt by the Federal Government to raise taxes in the form of whisky and resisted by local people who saw it as breaching the principles of the recently fought American Revolution against the British.

Nowadays the peace of Bedford is only broken by the sound of old bikers riding up and down Main Street on their Harley Davidsons. The main thoroughfare with its art deco petrol station, domed courthouse and numerous bars is like a Norman Rockwell painting brought to life. At first glance it contains all the virtues of small town America in all its down to earth and welcoming glory.

While there are some tourists, the town mostly serves the needs of the local rural community. A few doors down from the S and S appliance store and opposite the local Italian restaurant is the innocuously named Cove Creek Outfitters (‘premier sporting and apparel company’). Downstairs past the fishing waders and walking boots is a room containing sufficient weaponry to wage a small war.

Alongside the back wall are over one hundred types of rifles lined up with military-like precision. Inside the glass counter along the front are an equal number of hand guns, and next to them a few choice items including semi-automatic weapons that seem better suited to war zones than such a pastoral setting.

Something for the weekend from the local gun shop

Something for the weekend from the local gun shop

In surveying the hardware, I casually asked manager if as a foreign citizen I could get a weapon. ‘No problem, just more paperwork’ came the response. Given that there is no waiting period to get a gun in Pennsylvania, if I hadn’t left my passport at home I could have purchased – there and then – my very own Glock.

The same holiday weekend as I was enjoying the peace of rural Pennsylvania, fourteen people were killed and a further sixty eight were injured in gun attacks in Chicago. The amount of bloodshed managed to get the casualties (briefly) into the national news. Given that approximately 30,000 people a year in the US die in gun related incidents (including suicides), it takes a sufficiently large dose of death and destruction to win attention. Nowadays it’s only the horrific massacres of innocents in elementary schools, cinemas, and college campuses that are able to generate significant interest and outrage.

Growing up in virtually gun-free Britain I was conditioned to the absence rather than prevalence of guns. In those days (as is mostly the case today) the police fought crime with batons rather than pistols. I therefore fail to see the attraction or necessity of guns. At a stretch, I can understand why people might want to hunt, foregoing the sterile supermarket aisles for the gritty backwoods in search of meat for supper. But what eludes me is any possible explanation for the ready availability of weapons whose specific purpose is to maim or kill others with maximum power and minimum effort.

Living in Israel attuned me to the ubiquity of weapons, and I even became used to having a soldier’s M-16 resting against me in a crowded bus. But that country has been in a constant state of war for all of its existence, and despite the proliferation of weapons there is more a sense of sad acceptance rather than pride in gun ownership. In Israel my daughters participated in drills in case of missile attack (such as the country is now experiencing), which while unnerving were also understandable. In the US, the girls are forced to undergo ‘lock-downs’ during which they have to hide in complete silence in their classrooms in case of attack from an armed psychopath, who would have bought his weapon with ease on the basis of a right, rather than a need.

In trying to make sense of this situation, I have attempted to see guns as an outgrowth of American history and political culture. I remind myself that America was founded in a revolution against oppression, on the promise of ‘government of the people by the people’. I tell myself that in the US, gun ownership is seen as an embodiment of that power and of protection against tyranny. I try to see in Pennsylvania’s ‘Whisky Rebellion’ two hundred years ago, an example of the distrust viscerally felt towards the Federal Government that still burns strong today. But all those explanations crumble to dust when confronted by the raw numbers of those killed by weapons.

Americans – as I have discovered – are extraordinarily open, warm, generous and friendly. I don’t believe that the people of Bedford, Chicago or any other part of the US are inherently more violent than others around the world. So how can the horrifically high homicide rate be explained? If not by the nature of the people then it must be by the force of their arms.

The problem of course is that discussion of guns has fallen hostage to powerful political and commercial forces (the US is the largest domestic market globally for weapons). People here have become prey to cynical fear-mongering by the vested interests of the National Rifle Association who have managed to cow weak politicians into following their recipe for gun madness.

And so in the wake of American Independence Day it is a sadly ironic that as people here celebrated their hard won freedoms, many failed to see how they have also become prisoners of their right to bear arms.

The Game is (still) on……….

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I had intended on writing a post about the issue of race in America, but in recognition of the World Cup fever that has overtaken this country I feel compelled to pen some observations about the gathering love affair between the American public and football (aka soccer).

As mentioned in my previous post, I approach this subject armed with ample quantities of ignorance and reluctance, as one of a shrinking minority that has little interest in the game. But given that everything from buying gum at my local 7/11 to travelling in a lift now involves some discussion of the latest match, I feel obliged to add my ten cents worth (or whatever is the equivalent amount in the UK).

Putting the action on the pitch to one side for a moment, there is actually something interesting to be observed about the attendant side effects of the World Cup here in the US. Firstly, while packing bars, restaurants and spare conference rooms (at least at my workplace), Americans seem to have surprised themselves with the level of interest and excitement generated here by the World Cup, and their national side’s participation in it.

Commentators have gushingly noted how this World Cup is netting (warning: this piece will be sprinkled with football metaphors) the highest US TV audiences ever, for soccer. Almost 25 million people watched the fixture against Portugal (that’s about 1 in 12 people across the whole of the country). And judging by the ghostly quiet on the streets of the Nation’s Capital during the USA-Germany match even more of the population was glued to a TV screen yesterday (excepting yours truly who was at an fitness class attended only by a distracted instructor and one other person). Figures also show that the US is fielding the largest contingent of foreign fans in Brazil – way in excess of any Latin American or European country.

Furrowed-brow discussions have ensued about what this all means, given the long-standing sporting isolationism of the US. Traditionally America has seen itself akin to the UK’s position regarding Europe, as summed up in the apocryphal newspaper headline, ‘Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off’. For example, the ill-named World Series Baseball Championship involves only teams from North America.

The issue of the World Cup’s following has even become a political football (!) with some saying that it denotes a coming of age for the USA in joining in this global pastime, while others asserting that it demonstrates a temporary (and unwelcome) foreign fad. Leading the charge on the latter viewpoint is conservative ‘commentator’ Ann Coulter, who sees in football’s popularity a sign of the USA’s moral decay. In a display that seamlessly marries ignorance and nativism she asserts that, ‘no American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer. One can only hope that, in addition to learning English, these new Americans will drop their soccer fetish with time.’

Coulter sees something fundamentally ‘un-American’ about soccer, seemingly implying that it has been smuggled across the Rio Grande by people set upon undermining very fabric of the USA. This charge must mark a first alongside the (more credible) assertions that the game is responsible for work absenteeism, hooliganism and increasing the profits of breweries. And yet within Coulter’s poisonous brew there is something worth examining.

Many beyond the flaky ideological fringe see in the soccer phenomenon, a sign of an important (and positive) change within American society. In recent decades US has undergone a huge demographic change, most markedly with the increase in the number of Hispanic Americans. It is now estimated that at least 50 million out of over 300 million people in the country are of Hispanic origin. Spanish is now commonly heard in DC and other places on the East Coast, far from the traditional Hispanic heartlands in the West and South. With this demographic shift have come changes to the some of the old ways, including – many say – in sporting terms – the rise of soccer, which is now attracting not just big crowds but big money too.

But to the inexpert eye, I think this is only part of the explanation. Passing the bars in down-town DC, and where we live in the suburbs, most of those glued to the games don’t look like the newcomers of Ann Coulter’s nightmares, but instead resemble the very people whose ‘great-grandfathers were born in the US’. There is undoubtedly a degree of faddism to the current soccer-mania, but it also seems to reflect a desire to be part of something alongside the rest of the world. The US lacks national teams in most games popular elsewhere, and soccer may provide that sense of belonging. In more concrete terms, there is the fact that the game is probably reaping the rewards of the soccer Moms and Dads who invested their Saturday mornings (as I do now) in taking their kids to weekend matches. I suspect that many of those 20 or 30 something’s now sipping beer over World Cup games grew up kicking a football rather than handling one.

For me this means, that my trial by football will continue. The US is through to the last sixteen. But thanks to my daughters I am learning to distinguish Beckham from Beckerman, and Dempsey from Rooney, which will probably stand me in good stead in finding my place in the USA.

 

Meeting my match – in football

liv and edie soccer1Americans aren’t meant to care about soccer, (football to the rest of the world), and for me that presented a bonus in moving here.

I have lived a life of blissful ignorance of most things football. Unlike virtually every English male I know, I fail to get excited by how Manchester United, Chelsea or some other billionaire’s plaything are faring in the Premier League. When asked which team I support I instinctively reply ‘Arsenal’ – mostly because it was popular with my friends in the 1980’s. But any follow-up questions leave me stumped. I have only the vaguest idea of how the team is doing and who plays for them. I feel my eyelids becoming heavy when questions arise about key players, injuries, tactics, or virtually any detail that even a lukewarm follower of the Gunners should know. Over the years I have spent endless hours in bars having accompanied friends to watch games, only to find them absorbed in the match while I am equally enraptured in willing the clock to move quicker towards full time.

Thus it was with a certain degree or relief that I anticipated coming to live in the States – a land that seemed to share my indifference to the game worshipped just about everywhere else in the world. No longer would I have to feign familiarity or interest in the ups and downs of teams at national and international level. My foreign stature also relieved me of any required knowledge of baseball, basketball, or American football. Or so I thought.

It turns out that the US is a land which is slowly gaining the soccer bug. Livvy (shown in post-match victory pose with her number 1 fan – Edie) is one of hundreds of girls and boys who play on a local field every Saturday, in the local children’s league. Her team – the ‘Maroon 13’s’ take the game seriously, with mid-week practices, and end of season medals. And while soccer may be a foreign import, the kids are overwhelmingly as American as apple pie – as are the coaches.

I approach Maroon 13’s games with big dollop of fatherly pride and also a fair degree of trepidation – not I might add in anticipation of my daughter’s performance on the field – particularly as she exhibits skill on the pitch clearly not inherited from either of her parents. My nervousness is rooted in being uncovered as a soccer ignoramus. I live in particular fear of one of the other Dad’s whose daughter is the lynchpin of Maroon 13’s defense. He is an avid Arsenal fan despite having been born and raised 3,000 miles from the Holloway Road. The presence of a fellow ‘Gunner’ (at least that what he thinks) is an opportunity for him to discuss the minutiae of the team’s performance. As a result I spend the Saturday morning matches dodging him along the touchline, desperate to find myself wherever he isn’t, so that I don’t get caught in a chat about which I know nothing.

The World Cup is only adding to my discomfort. Earlier today, two workmen – both DC natives – came to my office to put up some wall fittings. Alongside repairing my poor attempt at DIY, they were eager to discuss England’s chances in the competition. Given that I don’t even know my Group A from my Group H, and wouldn’t be able to pick out the England players (except Rooney) in a line-up, we had a stilted conversation that I kept trying to steer back to where my global map and white-boards should hang.

The only football quote I know (and which I use if caught in a tight corner when discussing the game), is that attributed to Bill Shankly who said, ‘some people believe football is a matter of life and death…. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ The game certainly inspires near-religious devotion in England, Europe, Latin America, and much of the rest of the world. And while the US could once be relied upon to be once agnostic about soccer, it now seems it is becoming being slowly drawn into the floodlit sacrament of turf, ball and studded boots. And given the growing fervor of Livvy and latterly Edie in football, it looks like I might have to ‘up my game’ just to keep up.

Are you too feigning interest in football? If not – how do I start developing an interest? Advice urgently required!

Facing up to the Flag

Vietnam Vet on Memorial DayMonday was Memorial Day in the US. It was sobering, sad, and impressive.

We went to the Vietnam Memorial near the White House, to witness the thousands of grizzled veterans visiting the site from all over the country to pay homage to their fallen comrades. The Memorial is sunk into the ground, and like the conflict itself, sits like a scar in the landscape.

Here is a photo of just one of the many who crowded into the site, to lay a flag, or flowers or simply stare at the thousands of names of the American war dead chiseled into the marble.

Times of remembrance in all countries are occasions when the national colours are displayed. And in the US, it is thus, but only more so. On ‘ordinary days’ the Stars and Stripes can be found as the decorative backdrop on suburban streets, in shopping malls, people’s offices and elsewhere.

Coming from the UK, this overt display is unusual and disconcerting. The prevalence of the Stars and Stripes and reverence given to it, is part of the fabric of life here. It is something that is instilled at an early age, as I have discovered from the daily morning ritual at Livvy and Edie’s school (as illustrated by them below).

The Pledge of Allegiance is completely alien to my upbringing and a phenomenon that initially made me squirm with very English discomfort. Growing up in London in the 1970’s the Union Jack was something to be avoided rather than embraced. This wasn’t due to any lack of loyalty to Queen and Country – quite the opposite. My parents felt proud and lucky to have been born and brought up in Britain. But in those days the national flag didn’t feel as if it belonged to people like us.

I remember when I was about ten years old walking with my father through the local shopping area in Ealing where we lived. At the junction of the Broadway and Bond Street, just outside Clark’s shoe shop and opposite John Sanders department store was the unexpected sight of Union Jacks fluttering in the breeze, and alongside a few men handing out pamphlets to passing shoppers. I can’t recall what I felt, but even today the thought of those people and the flags sends a shiver down my spine.

These were the white supremacists of West London from the far-right National Front who’d chosen to come to our leafy suburb as it was situated a few miles from Southall, home to thousands of recent Indian and Pakistani immigrants. While the NF failed to win popular support it did succeed in appropriating the flag and making it a symbol to be feared rather than revered.

The only time I can recall being enamored with the Union Jack was when my parents took us up to Buckingham Palace on the night before the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 to see the decorations and hubbub for the anniversary. I was so absorbed in the elaborate arrangements of flags hanging above Pall Mall, that I walked straight into a lamp-post acquiring an egg-shaped bump on my head to accompany the mini Union Jack I’d been given.

The physical imprint passed quickly but the political association of the flag as an object to be avoided (along with lamp-posts) stuck with me for a long time. I partially carried my aversion to Israel, where the exploitation of the national colours by ultra-nationalists made me wary of joining in any display of flag-waving, even with ideological fellow travelers from the left (although the anthem and much else besides made my chest swell with pride).

It has taken the unapologetic American embrace of the Stars and Stripes to see the national flag as something which can be used – with extreme care – to generate a positive and unifying sense of identity – free of chauvinism.

The sentiments embodied in the US Pledge of Allegiance are commendable in encompassing nationhood as, ‘indivisible, with liberty and justice for all’. The inclusion of the phrase ‘One Nation under God’ jars with my secular disposition and – in my view – is at odds with the separation of religion and state as set out in the Constitution. Interestingly this change was only introduced sixty years ago in a flush of new found religious enthusiasm by then President – Dwight Eisenhower.

Nonetheless in articulating national values as synonymous with basic human rights the Pledge gets my support. Of course there are those who see the Flag, the Constitution, and American history as a whole, as license to adventurism, intolerance, insane levels of gun ownership, and much else besides. But given that if we are to have nation states (and they are increasing in number rather than diminishing) it is better that the flag be identified with inclusive tolerant values, and harnessed as such. It also seems vital that those of all political stripes (particularly those like me who are somewhat allergic to displays of national devotion) take ownership of the flag – so that it is not left for the chauvinists and bigots – like those from my childhood in Ealing.

In practical terms this means I am at peace with my daughters’ daily pledge to the Flag, and understand why many of my neighbours proudly hang the Stars and Strips from their front porches. But given my lingering inhibitions I will keep my pledges silent, and fly the flag by sentiment rather than overt display.

So let me know What you feel about your national flag…..

The Star (of David) Spangled Banner

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Recently a friend’s father died. ‘Suzanne’ as I will call her, decided that she would sit shiva for one night at her home. Many friends attended – not having been able to accompany Suzanne to the funeral which was held in her father’s hometown a few hours away. Nothing strange about that you might think – except that Suzanne is a Quaker, as was her father.

Suzanne’s husband ‘Jeff’ is Jewish, and as such they have, over the years, taken their kids to a local Reform synagogue. Their family life is a fusion of faiths with Christmas Tree and Chanuka lights at winter-time. But it was Suzanne – not her husband – who became involved in the synagogue through her children’s attendance at its Hebrew school, to the point where she was running the parent teacher association.

Coming to the States from Israel, and before that the UK, this kind of seamless religious integration between Judaism and other faiths, was completely foreign. But I am now coming to understand the peculiarities and positives about Jewish life in the US.

When Lysette and I first arrived in the Washington area from Tel Aviv, we felt nervous about re-entering life in the ‘Diaspora’. In Israel, we identified in our family life as hilonim (‘secularites’), meaning in practice, we kept Kosher at home, did Kiddush on Friday night, went on hikes or socialized on Shabbat, and virtually never ventured to our local orthodox synagogue (there was no other brand of Judaism around). But our kids spoke Hebrew fluently, learning about the meaning and traditions of Jewish life in their supposedly secular kindergarten and school. In our own way we also celebrated the festivals including, putting up our Sukkah in autumn (like most of our secular neighbours), lighting the Chanukah candles in winter, holding a seder night at Passover. The Holy Days were the national holidays, making synagogue feel unnecessary in this all pervasive (and positive) Jewish and Israeli atmosphere.

I recall one occasion when close family came to visit us from England.

‘Do you like going to shul’, my cousin’s husband asked my daughter, Livvy, then aged six.

Her face reflected back puzzlement by way of response.

‘Bet Knesset’ I said, using the Hebrew rather than Yiddish word for synagogue.

‘But we don’t believe in Elohim (God)’ Livvy retorted.

I don’t recall articulating my atheism, but it had obviously been picked up from the way we led our lives and the difference between us and the dati’im (religious), who Livvy observed attending synagogue.

When we got to the States, we realized that this situation wasn’t going to hold if we were to invest our children with a strong and positive Jewish identity.

On our first Yom Kippur in Washington, a short while after arriving, we drove to a local synagogue about which we had heard good things. In Israel, the Day of Atonement consisted of Livvy and Edie cycling around the streets, which were for this one day in the year, completely free of cars. Instead the roads were packed with the bikes, pedal scooters, and skateboards of those who weren’t in synagogue, but who wanted to take advantage of the lack of traffic and pollution. In Washington, en-route to the synagogue for our first family Diaspora Yom Kippur, Edie glanced at the car alongside ours which had bikes stacked on a rack in the rear and declared, “look, they must be Jewish too”. For her, and for all our family, being Jewish had come to mean doing the same as the people around us.

Thus began our journey in the US through the differing strands of Judaism in our vicinity; including Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform and more. We ultimately settled on a relaxed Liberal Conservative synagogue, with the girls attending, in addition to regular school, an Israeli-style pluralistic Hebrew school.
Jewish life here on the East coast of the US is very different from how I remember it growing up in London. As a child you instinctively dropped your voice in public when uttering the word ‘Jewish’, and the general tenor was that this was something to keep low-profile and private; British on the outside, but Jewish within.

In the US, being Jewish is part of the vernacular, a variation upon a theme, like I imagine Catholicism to be in the UK. I feel constantly surprised by how much Jewish culture has become part of American life. Yiddish phrases effortlessly pop out of the mouths of non-Jewish celebrities on TV, the papers are filled with matza related recipes around Passover, while at the same time of year President Obama holds a Seder at the White House.

I was brought up to believe that being Jewish wasn’t easy and was meant to be far from effortless – a bit like digesting gefilte fish. The local synagogue I attended as a child was traditional and cold, both in temperature and practice, with the officials (all men) attired in suits and shiny top hats. In Israel, the Orthodox was the synagogue we didn’t go to. But America is a country built upon the notions of freedom, choice, and convenience. And that has come to mean endless selection in all aspects of life; from breakfast cereals to the kind of Judaism you feel like practicing. The end result is seductive and inviting.

This has meant – in the American context – taking Judaism out of its particularistic closet, and making it seemingly more universal and accessible within society as a whole. It has become (mostly) synonymous with liberal values, acceptance, and openness. The synagogues are warm, comfortable, places with welcoming people on hand to guide you through the range of services – religious and social – on offer. This is all very strange to me, schooled in the private nervousness of Anglo Jewry and the public assertiveness of Israel secularism. But then this is the New World, which while foreign, also offers something novel, curious and maybe ultimately – homely.

A Bump (or two) in the Road

 

It’s taken a while to understand why the soccer Moms of suburban Washington DC prefer vehicles better suited for fording rivers in rural Montana than something more (literally) down to earth. But after a few months of navigating the streets of the nation’s capital I am also thinking of getting a Humvee.

Washington home to the government of the most powerful nation on earth is at ground level, a pockmarked mess. Venturing out in the car with Livvy and Edie to birthday parties, sports events, and school runs can be a bone-rattling experience, reminiscent of long ago road trips in Albania.

And it’s not just the roads that are in dire need of a makeover. Last year soon after arriving in the US, we were at a party and I ventured to get a glass of tap water. Attached to the top of the faucet was what looked like a bulbous hand-grenade. My host originally from Holland, explained that he had installed a filter on the tap because the water was unfit to drink from the source. The underground pipes he told me were so old and in such poor condition that the authorities had taken to regularly pumping in large amounts of chemicals to off-set the possibility of city-wide gastric upsets. While this made the water safe, he said it also made drinking it, akin to sipping from a swimming pool.

At the local hardware store, alongside the garden rakes, leaf blowers and cans of paint, there are generators of varying size and power lined up for sale. Initially I assumed they were for outdoor types who couldn’t do without a full electrify supply to power the necessities such as the flat-screen TV or Nespresso machine while away camping. But my first severe Washington winter, brought home their necessity in contending with the cocktail of unforgiving storms and inadequate infrastructure.

Unlike in Europe and elsewhere, power cables are not hidden away underground, but are strung spaghetti-like between wooden pylons along and across streets. Wires decorated with braids of vegetation wend their way between the limbs of the local trees, which while pleasant to look at also mean that when powerful winds blow through the neighbourhood, the electricity goes down with the power lines and snapped branches. Having been forced to sit at home in the cold and dark on a number of occasions this past winter, we went out and bought candles, flashlights, and a stack of blankets to ensure we were properly prepared for the wilds of urban life in the US. And while the overhead wiring is – like the roads – a reminder of less developed parts of the world, it is at least it is democratic – encompassing both DC’s comfy suburbs and the struggling inner-city neighborhoods.

In trying to understand how representative the DC area’s infrastructure is of the States as a whole, I stumbled across a 2013 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers. It offered little solace, illustrating not only how common this situation is, but also the scale of the problem. The report which is carried out following a study every four years looks into the state of the nation’s roads, water, airports, dams and more. It concluded that the US’s grade point average for infrastructure had risen to – a D+! And that was the good news! The paper also reported that the grade for drinking water improved to a D, but with the addendum that, ’much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life’ with an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year. Replacing the old piping would cost $1 trillion according to the engineers. As for the roads, the report said that over two hundred million trips are taken daily across the nation’s deficient bridges, which have an average age of 42 years.

Having absorbed the findings I felt a sudden affinity with the survivalists of distant Idaho or elsewhere in seeking refuge from the perils wrought by the Washington. Although the danger comes less from an imaginary overactive Federal Government wanting to take over the lives of freeborn Americans, but more as a consequence of administrative dysfunction and neglect.

The problem with America’s infrastructure derives from a lack of public spending that has become hostage to one of Washington’s main pastimes – apart from sitting in traffic jams – political infighting. Government at all levels – local, state and federal – has become afraid of investing, for fear of being accused of squandering.

America underwent a huge phase of public spending and building from the 1950- 1970’s. But as the nation riches grew and mega-malls made their debut for eager shoppers, it seems that the consumer’s appetite to shell out for state-funded projects diminished. And here lies an uncomfortable fact of everyday life in the US – the juxtaposition of private wealth with public want.

It is easily illustrated by my local Mall – a shiny marble palace of designer labels, cosmetics, the latest in hi-tech electronics and much much more. But having pulled out of the Mall’s parking lot, reality bites in the form of the rutted road beyond its confines. What is unsettling from a foreign perspective is the disconnect between the over-abundance inside, compared with the paucity of the public spaces outside. And much like the bitter political and cultural divisions, this difference appears to be widening as money isn’t invested where it is most needed.

In the meantime I have taken to strapping the girls in with particular care into their car seats before heading out, and making sure their bottles contain only filtered water.

Springing Forth

Blooming DC

Spring as we all know is the time for new buds of life to break forth, for color to fill what was barren and for the sun to emerge from behind the clouds.

It is in that spirit that the ‘Foreigndaze’ blog is launched. After a very long hibernation, I have decided to add some personal colour to the internet with observations on aspects of life – mainly in the United States –  but also from elsewhere, running the gauntlet from food, the American flag, tales from my travels and more.

But this first submission begins on a seasonal note to mark the bursting forth of blossom from every corner of DC. After months of winter which featured periodic deluges of snow, ice and rain, the city is letting out a collective happy sigh with the sudden flowerings and warmth. And in the USA nature undertakes this seasonal shift with an explosion of activity full of specatacle which leaves the UK, figuratively and literally – in the shade. Blossom blown from the trees fills up gutters with multi-coloured leaves. Beatrix Potter like scenes with bouncing rabbits and scrambling squirrels are played out in suburban gardens bursting with new plants and flowers.

Having grown up in a country which would comfortably fit into a medium size American state, most things in the US appear (and are) bigger: the cars, the shops, the people, the food, and also…the weather. Where in England there is a breeze which ruffles leaves, here gales gust and blow, felling thick old trees with apparent ease.

British seasons arrive in national character, somewhat meekly and apologetic in manner as if having stepped in quietly through a side entrance. In Washington they barge in through the front door with a brazen call to attention. Spring – as already mentioned – is a riot of activity and color, as if the forces of nature had just knocked back one espresso too many. Once the hyperacitivity of this season has passed, the DC summer arrives with a sodden knock-out blow of humidity accompanied by lush vegetation and a blazing sun. Autumn (aka fall) is a leafy carnival of crunchy leaves: fiery reds, pale yellows, translucent oranges, sandy browns, filling up the gardens and streets to knee level. It suddently gives way  to a barren winter-scape of naked grey trees,overcast skies, and teeth chattering temperatures.

A country’s climate is in many ways a weather vane (pun intended) of its national character, or the other way around.  Before coming to Washington we lived in Israel where heat (with very little cold) came in differing gradations depending upon the time of year , ranging from gently warming to ‘singe your eyelashes’ hot. This bears a striking resemblance to the temperament of Israelis who lack any sort of moderating temperature control for their emotions. Similarly the UK exists under near permanent cloud-cover where reports of good weather and more often that not dashed by capricious rainstorms.  Similarly British people often seem quietly downcast, waiting with resignation for what life or the elements will bring.

By contrast, the American climate demands attention, and not just to the weather forecasts which warn of yet another impending snow storm or heat wave. The seasonal variations require considerable hard work, cleaning up the detritus of the past season and preparing the ground for what’s coming next. Our neighbourhood is a hive of activity with people trimming, sweeping, cutting, and planting. I am currently nursing blisters and scratches having joined in the communal clean-up, hav ing filled seven large brown paper sacks with leaves, twigs, weeds and much else. This fervent activity also seems descriptive of the American character, which places high values industriousness in every aspect of life. Despite the periodic harshness of the climate, people here seem to pitch themselves against the forces of nature with an energetic optimism. Americans seem to relish clearing masses of vegetation when most Europeans would be happily sitting back with a long, cold beer.

There is much to admire in the power of nature in the US. It packs a punch even when it is ‘regular weather’. On extreme end of the scale it is humbling and scary. During ‘tornado season’ in the Mid-West, the news regularly reports of communities reduced to matchwood, with tearful residents pledging to rebuild their lives as soon as possible.

Americans have both shaped their environment and been shaped by it. This is very place different from William Blake’s ‘green and pleasant’ England. It is a tougher, harder country which has historically has brought a lot of privation en-route to the land of plenty it has become today.

The weather brings home the fact that this is a very different landscape from Europe and certainly from the Middle East. And what is true for the climate is representative of so many other aspects of life: politics, social attitudes and much more.

All of which I hope will provide a steady stream of material for future (regular) instalments of this blog.